Trails for everyone, forever
Hikers rely on the Forest Service, but for decades the agency hasn't gotten the funding it needs. Hikers can speak up to help the agency get the support necessary to care for trails and public lands.
When you think about the U.S. Forest Service, what comes to mind? For hikers, the answer may be simple: forests, public lands, wilderness. At WTA, we think of all of those things, too. We also recognize the Forest Service as one of our biggest partners in our mission to ensure our state has trails for everyone, forever.
The Forest Service is tasked with maintaining national forests and ensuring public lands are healthy, so that we and generations to come have the opportunity to enjoy the many benefits of time spent outdoors. And while their mission may bring to mind winding trails and beautiful forests, at its very heart, the Forest Service is made up of people. At WTA, we work closely with the Forest Service, and we respect those people who steward the forests we love. And we know that there are not enough of those people to do the job they are tasked with.
Forest Service land is the biggest area that hikers recreate on in our state. An increasing demand for trails, paired with chronic underinvestment for staffing by Congress, means the Forest Service isn’t able to keep up. As part of our Lost Trails Found work, we are working to get the Forest Service the sustainable funding it needs to help keep trails on the map. The Forest Service needs more capacity at every level, and that includes hiring more people.
To understand why staff is so important to the Forest Service, let’s take a moment to understand their work.
The United States Forest Service is a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that is tasked with managing more than 193 million acres of public lands across the country. The Forest Service is responsible for things like:
Forest Service staff have a variety of areas of expertise, including experts in ecology, skilled communications professionals, technology administrators and more. They work on public lands and behind the scenes to ensure outdoor spaces are protected, connected and enjoyed. All of that work requires a high level of skill and on-the-ground knowledge. We constantly see that Forest Service professionals are talented and dedicated — and we also see that they are stretched too thin. They’re trying to do too much work with too few resources. And that lack of staffing has real impacts on hikers and public lands.
Forest Service staff do so much for trails and public lands — but most of their work is easy for an everyday hiker to overlook. It may help to visualize some of that work, so let’s think about the ways you may see it on a hike.
You’re about to head out to a hike recommended by a friend. You pack your gear and tell someone trustworthy where you’re going. The drive is lovely, but as you hit the Forest Service road, you slow to a bumpy crawl and worry about encountering other drivers on the narrow route. It’s so rough, you’re grateful for a high-clearance vehicle; a lot of vehicles couldn’t make it. In some sections the ruts are so big you wonder if you’ll be able to make it to the trailhead.
But you make it. You end up parking a half mile down the road because there’s no room in the trailhead lot. You’re excited for the hike, because this trail had been closed for years due to wildfires. After restoration and maintenance, it’s finally open again. Before you start your hike, you use the trailhead facilities and read the signs on the kiosk. The signage tells you to be careful of the fragile ecosystems, which have been affected by heat, drought and the more recent fires. You recreate carefully, avoid delicate areas and enjoy a beautiful, safe hike.
Throughout this entire journey, the Forest Service has a hand in your experience. There are people planning and maintaining roads that provide access to trailheads. There are people who ensure parking lots are accessible. People who clean and maintain trailhead facilities and toilets. People who are experts in recovery after wildfires. And people who use their knowledge of local ecosystems to understand how to protect them for years to come.
People. The Forest Service is made up of people, but not enough to meet the pressures the agency faces. As more people discover the joys of hiking, as populations grow and as we face the challenges of wildfires and climate change, the Forest Service needs to be strong. They have so much work to do — and at their current staffing levels, they’re not equipped to handle it. They need more help.
Since the 1990s, the Forest Service has had its funding and staff reduced across nearly all programs. There are now half as many trail crew and forestry technicians as there were in 1992, but in that time, visitation has increased dramatically. (From just 2014 to 2018, visitation increased by 800,000 visits per year.) Think about all that the Forest Service does: habitat restoration, recreation planning, wildfire mitigation, conservation of fragile spaces. Cuts to the Forest Service have created a void in the necessary services needed to protect our lands. Especially when coupled with more people recreating outdoors and inflation, recreation budgets have not allowed for the expansion of staffing needed to keep pace with demand.
Ryan Ojerio, WTA’s Southwest regional manager, has seen the effects of those cuts. He points out that there used to be three full-time Forest Service recreation staff for the Cowlitz Valley Ranger District in Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Now there is only one. The same limited capacity applies to Forest Service crew out in the field. Alan Carter Mortimer, field programs manager at WTA, recalls hearing about a time when the Methow Ranger District had four robust trail crews. Now they have a single crew.
Districts across the state and country are facing the same reduced capacity. This limits the Forest Service’s time and ability to take on new projects, partner with other organizations and more. It may mean trail planning or work is delayed or that important informational signs aren’t available to hikers.
Outdoor recreation is ever increasing, but the number of Forest Service personnel has not grown with it. Inadequate staffing in the Forest Service means maintenance issues, inaccessible trailheads and more vulnerable ecosystems. Current staff are stretched much too thin. This means that important projects are delayed and some places and communities are neglected.
Even with money coming to the Forest Service through historic wins, like the Great American Outdoors Act that passed in 2020, there aren’t enough people to manage the new funding.
Jen Gradisher, trails program director for WTA, has seen how that’s been challenging.
“Great American Outdoors Act money is great for organizations like us, but agencies are still faced with limited capacity to coordinate this influx of money and projects because acts like GAOA don’t typically fund staff,” she said.
Projects that the Forest Service develop often require lengthy planning periods. Permitting, mapping, environment analysis and engaging with the community, tribes and organizations involved in trail building are all necessary before on-the-ground work can begin. All of that work requires dedicated employees who devote years to completing a project.
While we are delighted with Congress’ approval of GAOA funding, we also want to see funding for staff to do the work needed for trails and public lands. GAOA isn’t the only way to ensure the Forest Service can receive the necessary funding to meet the needs of recreationists and its mission. In 2021, the Build Back Better Act introduced in Congress included billions of dollars in investment in the Forest Service. That bill has not passed Congress.
Funding for planning and the staff needed to carry out planning can also come through increased appropriations to the Forest Service. Each year, Congress is tasked with passing a budget for organizations like the Forest Service. They take into account budget requests for each agency, community input and the president’s suggestions. This budgeting process is an opportunity to plan ahead and directly invest in the Forest Service.
The Forest Service is missing the full suite of people they need to care for national forests now, and in the future. An adequately staffed and funded Forest Service is critical to our unique and plentiful outdoor experiences here in Washington.
At WTA, we partner with our national forests on trail maintenance, public engagement, education and more. We work alongside Forest Service staff to maintain access and recreation opportunities for our community. Our volunteers are amazing, but they can’t do it all. They can’t plan for a new bridge; they can’t repair roads. We need our partners to be strong to allow our volunteers to do their best work as well.
This year, WTA will be making the case to fund the Forest Service at the level the agency needs to keep our forests whole. We are committed to ensuring the Forest Service has the people and resources it needs to steward our public lands with a personal touch. If you want to see more of the services and access to our national forests that connect you to outdoor experiences (and not just trails but trailheads, signage, parking lots, roads and toilets too) join us in speaking up for our Forest Service partners.